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The Way to Reform Gun Laws Is Incrementally

Gun-reform advocates should learn from the NRA.
by Jim Swift
May 26, 2022
The Way to Reform Gun Laws Is Incrementally
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Saint Louis, Missouri
Last week, two and a half miles from where I type this, Christopher Brennan was murdered in cold blood while taking out the trash. I had met Brennan a few times when I lived in St. Louis. He was shot seven times, once in the head.

Saint Louis, like many cities, has long had a crime problem. Whenever I come back here, I bring a gun.

After a friend told me about Brennan’s death, I thought a lot about how Missouri’s gun laws have changed since I lived here and how my own views toward gun laws and gun control have changed. Brennan’s alleged killer used a stolen handgun, and is 20 years old.

A day after I heard about Brennan’s murder, a class of Texas fourth graders and their teachers were slaughtered by an 18-year-old with an assault rifle.

Maybe it’s time that people who want to reform gun laws learn about the incremental approach. After all, the people who want to expand gun access know all about it.

Let me tell you a story about my first gun.

When I lived in Missouri, on my twenty-first birthday, I bought a Glock 17, a 9mm handgun. I had taken a semester off of school to work on the Bush 2004 campaign, and as somebody who didn’t grow up with guns in liberal Shaker Heights, Ohio, I really wanted one. I had friends and coworkers who taught me about responsible gun ownership and usage—but if I hadn’t, I would have taken a class, whether required to or not.

Saint Louis City, where I lived, had a three-day waiting period. So I paid for the gun at Galyan’s, passed my NICS background check and my state background check, and then, three days later, got my approval from the city, which I had to pick up at City Hall before I could get my gun. Under the state’s castle doctrine, I could keep it in my car, on my property, and at my place of business. I could go to a shooting range or shoot on somebody’s private property—but that’s it. To get a concealed handgun permit—to carry it in public—I would have to wait until I was 23.

That was then.

Missouri now has same-day purchases, with no waiting periods.

Their concealed handgun regime? Glad you asked: Previously, 23-year-olds would have to take a class and apply for a license, which, if granted, would appear on your driver’s license. Today Missourians (or anyone visiting Missouri) aged 19 or older who meet the requirements to possess—not buy—a firearm can carry one without a concealed handgun permit or any training or demonstrated knowledge of the gun or state laws regarding carrying a gun.

Yes: This means that in Missouri, people who aren’t old enough to buy handguns under federal law—which mandates that a handgun buyer be at least 21 years old—can legally carry them concealed in the state. Think about that for a minute.

In 2007, when I moved to Virginia, I took a class, passed a test, gave the state police my fingerprints, submitted to a background check, and waited a month until a court agreed to grant me a license to carry a gun based on my application and background check.

Today in Missouri, untrained people who have not demonstrated competency with a gun or knowledge of the law can walk around with concealed handguns, no problem.

What happened in Missouri was this: The state used to have some restrictions and regulations on gun ownership and carrying. But the NRA and gun groups incrementally pressured legislators to do what they wanted. And eventually they got the whole kit and caboodle.

Perhaps gun-reform advocates could start working to restore some sanity to this regime in the same way: incrementally.

Not every law would prevent every type of shooting. For instance, even under the old Missouri law, Brennan’s alleged killer still would have gotten his gun, because he stole it.

But that’s not the case in the Uvalde murders. In 2018, after the last big school shooting in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said he was open to a “red flag” law proposal, which would permit authorities to petition a court to remove firearms from individuals who pose a risk to themselves or others, often at the behest of family members. But pressure from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and gun absolutists nixed that. Instead, Texas politicians actually made their gun laws more permissive. A red flag law might have stopped the Uvalde killer from buying his assault rifles.

In Florida, something very different happened after the Stoneman Douglas school shooting in 2018: Republicans raised the age to buy rifles or shotguns to 21. This was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott.

At the time, Scott said: “We all have a difficult task in front of us balancing our individual rights with our obvious need for public safety.” Indeed. I hope Senator Scott agrees with Governor Scott on that in the future.

Debates about guns often boil down to a reductio ad absurdum with one person wanting to ban / confiscate guns and the other person wanting no new limits, barriers, or regulations of any kind. But that’s not the way to make progress.

A law like Florida’s might also have prevented the Uvalde shooting, as the shooter was 18. Maybe he could have found a way to borrow a firearm, or, like in the case of Brennan’s alleged killer, stolen a gun. We’ll never know for sure.

The average age of a school shooter in recent years is under the legal age for buying a firearm, so there could be avenues to push for storage requirements, too. The point here is to look for incremental wins and make it painful for no-gun-regulation politicians to vote against them—not push for sweeping legislation in the wake of a tragedy only to have it fail and then see momentum for change stall.

I know this advice may seem callous to my friends who want gun control now. But I’m just trying to be realistic. You may disagree with pro-lifers or the NRA, but their model is the one to emulate.

Real and important changes take time.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.